Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 2, 2006
Caroline Jones Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 544 pp.; 23 color ills.; 127 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0226409511)

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The last word on the history of the New York School is far from having been written. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses announces a new chapter in the study of mid-century art and criticism by attempting to conclude one. At the end of her preface, Caroline Jones reveals, “More than anything else I’ve written, this book exists to end its subject—to construe the Greenberg effect, in order to be done with it” (xxix). Her central claim is that Greenberg’s art criticism served to limit and reduce experience to the visual, which, in the process, produced a distinctively “modern subject” that to this day remains largely authoritative. She argues that criticism was the means by which “Clement” became “Greenberg,” thus crafting “a subject of the modern age” (49). Eyesight Alone takes seriously “Greenberg’s own idea that he found his ultimate raison d’etre by looking at modern art. . . . Above all, Greenberg wrote criticism to articulate his own processes of visualizing (and thereby internalizing) modernity” (xv). Eyesight Alone is the embodiment of what Jones feels is “the need for a ‘critical’ history of Greenberg. Not really a biography, not an intellectual history, not a social history—but appropriating from these genres to craft an art history that might begin to approach the complexity of its object” (xx). Jones explores the kind of subject (“Greenberg”) that was produced through the technologies of modernist subjectivity, namely visuality, technologies Greenberg himself was instrumental in developing. “I claim that Greenberg’s modernism and its formalist praxis resonated with a long-term development I call the bureaucratization of the senses” (xvii). Jones deploys the suggestive metaphor of bureaucratization to interpret Greenberg’s critical practice. Essentially a process that controls knowledge and experience by systemizing it, separating it, and producing narrow specialists to maintain these boundaries, bureaucratization goes hand in hand with the process of modernization. Bureaucratization, which served to distill Greenberg’s senses into the purely visible, was embodied in his art criticism.

My overarching thesis is that Greenberg sought to become the kind of subject who could make sense of a modern urban existence, and then proceeded to offer that subjectivity to others. Crucially for him, visual art was the most efficient means toward both ends. In turn it was his reader’s desires to constitute themselves with a particularly visual kind of modernism that gave Greenberg his enormous cultural power. (xv)

Greenberg’s power and influence are thus found in his ability to offer a reductive modernist subjectivity to his readers who likewise desired “to see” as he saw, to experience as he experienced. Jones argues that Greenberg’s art writing gave readers what they wanted.

Eyesight Alone is organized in three parts. In the first part, “Statements,” Jones explores Greenberg’s personal life and then demonstrates how it shaped his developing theory of art. In her first chapter, “Beginnings,” Jones “chart[s] the turbulent experience of family, aesthetic sensation, and body appetites that modernism seemed to contain” (xxv). In her second chapter, “Formalism,” Jones explores formalism through the “trope” of the “Laocoönic regime” (52), which involved “securing a positivist abstraction where chaos, madness, or spirituality once reigned” through “reduction” and “embodiment” (95). In her third chapter, “Abstraction,” Jones focuses on Greenberg’s formation of a working concept of abstraction through dialogue and debate with art historians Ernst Gombrich and Meyer Schapiro. “Greenberg gave his readers,” Jones argues, “a way to enter the fold. Abstraction—made concrete, positive, and material—would be available to all” (142). The next chapter, aptly and provocatively entitled “Sweating Out Cubism,” shows Greenberg, armed with his reductive concepts of abstraction and formalism, confronting early modernism in the United States, which offered strong resistance to his developing critical framework.

In the second part, “Visibilities,” Jones “attends to the microscopic shifts undergirding the apparently seamless transparency of the visible” through an in-depth analysis of Greenberg’s relationship with Jackson Pollock (xxvii). The chapter “Customs Inspector” explores the bureaucratization of experience and visuality encountered by Greenberg during his early employment as a customs inspector, and which later informed his art criticism. Jones makes much of Greenberg’s mistaken description of Mondrian’s New York Boogie-Woogie in 1943 as a manifestation that “Greenberg hadn’t read enough to know what it was he could not possibly be seeing” (212). This is a significant observation. For Greenberg’s revisions in Art and Culture (1961) of previously published writings suggest a critic concerned as much with narrative and language as with the intuitive visual experience he ballyhooed. As Jones suggests, “Greenberg came to opticality through the pictorial, and to pictoriality through the word” (416). “Eyesight alone” is thus a rhetorical trope, a literary device, in Greenberg’s writing. In this section, we also “observe a bureaucrat who writes about art become painfully retooled into a subject who can see” (212; emphasis in original). In the next—and pivotal—chapter, “Eyes in the Heat,” Jones uses Pollock’s painting of that title to analyze the complex and mutually beneficial relationship between critic and artist. “Pollock found a voice in Clement Greenberg, just as surely as Greenberg found ‘light’ for his visibility in Pollock’s paint” (276). Jones continues, “It mattered that it was this particular prose (Greenberg’s), and these particular paintings (Pollock’s) that worked together; their gears intermeshed in surprising ways to amplify their potential energies and kinetic cultural effects” (297). Jones also explores in this chapter the gendered nature of this nascent modernist regime through Lee Krasner, who “invisibly” served as the conduit between Pollock and Greenberg, and Janet Sobel, whose dripped paintings anticipated Pollock’s and whom he dismissed in a review in 1946 (297). The next chapter, “Tyranny of the Eye,” explores the “paradoxically empowering tyranny of the Greenbergian Eye,” in which Greenberg’s visuality comes, as Greenberg himself observed the critic’s role, as “manipulators of attention” (344). This is worked out primarily through Jones’s analysis of another gendered relationship, between Greenberg and Helen Frankenthaler, who came to artistic maturity “within Greenberg’s articulation of modernist visibility” (306). Jones focuses on how Frankenthaler’s paintings work to reveal instabilities in the “Greenberg effect,” namely in the relationship between the body and “eyesight alone.” (That Greenberg and Frankenthaler were romantically involved further challenges and compromises Greenberg’s visual bureaucratic regime.)

Eyesight Alone concludes with the third part, entitled “Regimes,” which attempts to step back and explore Greenberg’s discursive influence and effect through “reviving Greenberg at the precise moment of his decline” (xxvii). In “Postmodernism’s Greenberg,” Jones examines how the “critical postmodernists around October magazine (many of them students of Rosalind Krauss) . . . cemented Greenberg into theoretical importance, and defeated him there” (348–49). In this part Jones contextualizes formalism in order to “propel and provoke scholarship into larger areas of study that can, over time, better account for the emergence of a figure such as Greenberg” (xxvii). Jones introduces and explores what she calls the “Greenberg effect,” which is her attempt to account for Greenberg’s continuing authority. The study concludes with “The Modernist Sensorium,” which ends where it began: with pleasure. Jones addresses the pleasures of modernism and its disciplines, for “only by understanding the pleasurable intensification that formalism entailed can we comprehend the twentieth century’s desire for Greenberg” (xxvii). It also focuses on how modernist visuality structured other senses, namely the acoustic. Jones observes, “The Tao of Greenberg is clear. The internalization of modernist order inoculated the emerging subject against the trauma of further modernization” (434).

Eyesight Alone has many strengths. Jones addresses Greenberg as a person without devolving into the Romantic biography and hagiography that often haunts his despisers as well as his admirers. Furthermore, she is able to explore the discursive regimes that she says produce subjectivity without descending into the abyss of a structuralism that has no room for human participation in shaping such practices. Perhaps most significant for future study in the field is Jones’s working assumption that art criticism for Greenberg is a poetic, creative, and aesthetic practice. Jones argues quite convincingly that art criticism is a means by which Greenberg meets needs that have less to do with the art he wrote about than his commentators have admitted. The common wisdom in the scholarly community is that the continued relevance of Greenberg’s art criticism has to do with its superior quality. He simply produced better art criticism than his competitors. What is often ignored is that what “better” means has been defined by Greenberg and his academic commentators. But Eyesight Alone tries to avoid being caught up in explicit pro-and anti-Greenbergian perspectives that have often characterized and distorted discourse on his art criticism since the publication of Art and Culture. Jones claims, “The present book is more or less neutral on such subjects,” further asserting that she “does not have a dog in this race” (xxi).

But Eyesight Alone is not the neutral, disinterested, and descriptive study it appears. Her qualified neutrality masks something significant about how she herself is mapped onto this Greenbergian matrix, something “invisible” Jones’s study does not recognize. Although it is not involved in Greenbergian polemics, those polemics have shaped Eyesight Alone. Jones herself admits this. “I, too, am a function of the Greenberg effect” (349); and she reveals this further when she asserts, “Stated baldly, my historical thesis argues that regimes of sensory isolation and purification reinforced our appetite for Greenberg’s formalism and its art” (xxvii). But to whose appetite does Jones refer? Who makes up this “our?” I argue that “our appetite” is a reference to the generation of art history graduate students from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, whose scholarship has been shaped by Greenberg’s academic commentators. It is their appetite to which Jones refers. Eyesight Alone thus marks an attempt to exorcise Greenberg’s influence on a generation of art historians whose very notion of what art criticism is, what art history is, and what modernism is, is defined through what Thierry de Duve refers to as the “late Greenberg.” This Greenberg wrote and talked about art criticism rather than produced it, was interviewed by graduate students and art historians in which he attempted to re-write the historical narrative of his influence through a new generation of historians of modern art, thereby “manipulating attention” in a very different but effective way, largely by re-staging battles already fought (and lost?) in the forties and fifties. It is thus not insignificant that Jones herself relies heavily on her own interviews with Greenberg in 1986 and 1987.

There are several omissions in Jones’s study that, to my mind, compromise its potency and reveal just how profoundly molded she remains by the Greenberg effect. First, Jones does not go into sufficient depth to discuss the implications of bureaucratization. It is not only important for understanding Greenberg’s own critical practice, but it is seminal for understanding how his criticism was received and the influence it exerted in academia, particularly in the professionalization of art criticism, which initiated the legitimization of the academic study of contemporary art in the 1960s, thus transforming the art world. Second, Jones seems unconcerned to engage Greenberg’s most important interlocutors on specific subjects. Writers such as Rosalind Krauss, Donald Kuspit, Michael Fried, T. J. Clark, Richard Shiff, Yves-Alain Bois, Theirry de Duve, and Jonathan Harris (with his recent book on Greenberg, Clark, and Fried) are only a few of the many writers who have contributed to our understanding of Greenberg. In short, the Greenberg effect, so called, is the product not just of Greenberg, but also of his interpreters. Perhaps the fact that Jones does not regard her study to be a conventional art history, biography, social or intellectual history allows her to avoid engaging the scholarly literature in this way, de-emphasizing their role in producing “Greenberg.” However, by focusing exclusively on Greenberg as the sole producer of a “modern subject,” Jones greatly exaggerates his larger cultural influence. I have no doubt that Greenberg and his scholastic interpreters produced a “modern subject,” but it remains an open question if the “modern subject” that Jones articulates possesses any authority or attractiveness outside the graduate seminar room.

And finally, given her attention to Gombrich and Schapiro, the absence of Harold Rosenberg is revealing. If Jones believes that “Greenberg” was a product of discourse and desire, it seems strange that Rosenberg merits virtually no attention except to observe that Greenberg was spurred on not only to publish Art and Culture after the attention that Rosenberg received with his publication of The Tradition of the New (1959), but that Rosenberg’s book also prompted his influential essay, “How Artwriting Receives Its Bad Name.” This is an important observation that warrants attention. Rosenberg haunts Greenberg. Debra Bricker Balken’s critical biography of Rosenberg, due out soon from the University of Chicago Press, will help counter an inexcusable anti-Rosenberg bias, a bias that is the product of the very Greenberg effect Jones claims to exorcise. Moreover, Rosenberg stands in opposition to Jones’s entire project regarding the “bureaucratization of the senses” and “eyesight alone.” Rosenberg embodied and represented another, more robust, tradition of criticism, one that Greenberg’s bureaucratizing tendencies and his over-specialized followers likewise despised because it was “journalistic” and did not possess the art historical rigor they projected onto Greenberg’s journalistic prose. By privileging Greenberg’s rather brief encounters with Gombrich and Schapiro and ignoring his obsession with Rosenberg, Jones is merely perpetuating an important component of the Greenberg effect: giving Greenberg an art historical pedigree, which enables Art and Culture to be used as an art historical textbook.

Jones is right. For future study of the New York School and mid-century art and art criticism, the scholarly community needs to contextualize the “Greenberg effect” in order to produce the kind of critical and historiographically self-conscious studies the period deserves. After Jones admits her own complicity, she continues:

Looking closely at these internecine battles has but one purpose, consonant with the dream of critical history itself. On the one hand, I want to free the future from the need to repeat the past. On the other, I aim to think the unthought in Greenberg’s modernism in order to undo some fragment of its subjectivating power. Others can discard all this baggage and move on, once its contents have been properly tagged. (349)

Although Eyesight Alone desires to put “Greenberg” in his place, Jones underestimates the power of the Greenberg effect while overestimating Greenberg’s hand in producing the “modern subject.” In order to “move on” from the Greenberg effect, more will be required than a book on Greenberg’s visuality and to “think the unthought” in his modernism. In the last analysis, the Greenberg effect will remain authoritative until an unapologetic institutional and social history explores how the emergence of the study of modern art in graduate schools in the sixties participated in creating and sustaining the Greenberg effect and how the “Greenberg” that it produced differs from the “Greenberg” of the forties and fifties. Eyesight Alone shows that the time is right for a historiographical analysis of mid-century American art and art criticism, one that takes the curators, critics, and art historians from the sixties to the present to be active participants in producing the Greenberg effect. But it also suggests the reality that new chapters will have to written by those who do not first have to exorcise the Greenberg effect.

Daniel A. Siedell
Curator, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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